Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 614
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson is a collection of five separate short stories compiled after Johnson's death, each of which is colored with reflections on life and contemplation of its meaning and what happens after death. These stories were all written during Johnson's last days, so his preoccupation with life and death is understandable.
The first story, titled "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden," follows Bill Whitman, an advertiser, and his life in San Diego. The story trudges through his daily existence, which is boring and rather stale, and juxtaposes it against his voyage to New York City to receive an award for an ad he had help create years prior. The other colleagues who had worked with him don't show up to accept it because they are further along in their careers than Bill and too busy to be bothered to receive the award. After an exciting voyage back to New York City, he returns home and settles back into a comfortable, but dreary, existence.
The second story is titled "Starlight in Idaho," and it takes the form of letters from Cass, a drug addict rehabilitating from alcoholism in a rehab. As he goes through rehab, he details delusions of grandeur and psychosis until he finally stabilizes. Once he leaves the program, he finds religion and hopes to turn his life around.
"Strangler Bob," the third story, explores the life of an eighteen year old inmate who is dubbed Dink by the other prisoners. He stole and wrecked a stranger's car and spends time talking with acrobatic teenage inmate Dundun and B.D., a large, muscled inmate around his age, and they form the "Three Musketeers." Most of the story is just vignettes about their daily prison life, and while they were doing drugs that B.D's younger brother had smuggled him in a soaked magazine, Strangler Bob, Dink's cellmate, tells them that they'll all end up as murderers, just like he is. He claims that B.D. would be the first, and Dink surmises that when B.D. committed suicide 15 years later, he technically had committed his own murder. Dundun later murdered a guard when robbing a drug lord in Kansas City, which resulted in him giving Dink heroin, to which he became addicted. By sharing infected needles with others due to his heroin addiction later on, Dink figures that he must had murdered countless individuals.
The fourth story is titled "Triumph Over the Grave," which is about a caretaker who tends to the dying. He tells two parallel stories about a man with lung cancer who hallucinates and sees visions of relatives and friends. The narrator takes him to the hospital and cares for him until he passes. He does the same for an elderly man on his deathbed. The writer explains that he has seen many people die and that it is essentially meaningless in the end because life continues without you once you are gone.
The final story is titled "Doppelganger, Poltergeist." Kevin, the narrator, shares the story of his relationship with poet Mark, who is a poetry teacher at Columbia, where Kevin attends class. Mark spends much of his time obsessed with Elvis, believing that he died prematurely and was replaced by a twin that was presumed stillborn. Kevin follows Mark's near madness as he pursues the conspiracy theory for years until he finds the grave of Elvis' twin. His obsession eventually leads him to suppose that Kevin is his own stillborn twin reborn, and Mark is later arrested for desecrating Elvis' brother's grave.
The five stories reflect on life and death as Johnson muses over whether it has any meaning in the end.
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